The Strange Horrors of Robert Aickman

A master of unsettling tales is poised for a revival

One had to lose the noise of the mechanism, not least the ever-deafening inner echoes of it. One had to dispel practicality. Then something else could be heard — if one was lucky, if the sun was shining, if the paths were well made, if one wore the right garments, and if one made no attempt at definition or popularisation.

— Robert Aickman, “Into the Wood”

Thirty-five years after his death, Robert Aickman is beginning to receive the attention he deserves as one of the great 20th century writers of short fiction. For the first time, new editions of his books are plentiful, making this a golden age for readers who appreciate the uniquely unsettling effect of his work.

Unsettling is a key description for Aickman’s writing, not merely in the sense of creating anxiety, but in the sense of undoing what has been settled: his stories unsettle the ideas you bring to them about how fictional reality and consensus reality should fit together. The supernatural is never far from the surreal. He was drawn to ghost stories because they provided him with conventions for unmaking the conventional world, but he was about as much of a traditional ghost story writer as Salvador Dalí was a typical designer of pocket watches.

Laird Barron once noted that “[t]he surest way to comprehend Aickman is to read a lot of Aickman.” Until now, that task was, for many, all but impossible.

Tartarus Press has done heroic work over the years to keep Aickman in print, first with 1999’s two-volume Collected Strange Stories, then, beginning in 2011, with exquisite reissues of each of the individual collections, culminating with The Strangers and Other Writings in 2015, a collection of work previously unpublished, as well as nonfiction that had never been reprinted before. The Tartarus editions are jewels, but they are limited editions, and most casual Aickman readers will not want to spend the money on them (even though they are bargains given the quality of their production).

In 2014, the centenary of Aickman’s birth, Faber & Faber released in the U.K. inexpensive paperback and e-book editions of four of Aickman’s story collections, as well as his novella The Model and novel The Late Breakfasters. Over the next six months, Faber’s editions of the stories are arriving in the U.S., and Valancourt Books has recently published The Late Breakfasters and Other Strange Stories.

For the first time in decades, the majority of Aickman’s work will now be generally available in the U.S and the U.K.

Such a wondrous situation poses challenges for new readers, though, who might wonder where to begin. That question is easy to answer: You can’t go wrong with any of the four Faber collections, particularly The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, both put together posthumously to reprint some of Aickman’s best tales. All together, the Faber collections reprint just over half of Aickman’s complete stories, with only “Bind Your Hair” appearing more than once. The Late Breakfasters and The Model are odd, fascinating, and beautiful, but a bit atypical; the stories are what sit at the heart of the Aickmanesque.

The question of Aickman now is not so much what to read, but what to do with what is read: how to experience and interpret his work in the most satisfying way. Aickman is a difficult writer for many readers, but the difficulties are not inherent to his writing (which is usually quite accessible) so much as they are to the lenses through which we see that writing.

It is among aficionados of esoteric horror stories that Robert Aickman’s name is best known. But Aickman himself preferred other labels — he associated the horror story with sadomasochism, a goal different from his own. Even if we define “the horror story” more broadly, however, focusing on Aickman only as a horror writer does a disservice to the range and originality of his work. Further, such a focus sets up expectations that may warp how the stories are read. It is one thing to start reading expecting a horror story; it is another to start reading expecting an Aickman story.

He typically called his fiction “strange stories”, an accurate label, and one that sets the right expectations for any reader making a first journey into Aickman’s world.

The “strange stories” label also helps us place Aickman in a broader lineage: not just that of great writers of terror and the supernatural, but also of great writers for whom there is no one label or even a recognized tradition. Though it is certainly accurate to say that Aickman’s work often falls into the realm of the ghost story, we will understand his achievement better if we think of him among such unsettling writers as Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bowen, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and even — particularly in his approach to story structure — Anton Chekhov.

In his introduction to The Wine Dark Sea, Peter Straub writes:

Aickman’s characters find themselves trapped in a series of events unconnected by logic, or which are connected by a nonlinear logic. Very often neither the characters nor the reader can be certain about exactly what has happened, yet the story has the satisfying rightness of a poem — a John Ashbery poem. Every detail is echoed or commented upon, nothing is random or wasted. The reader has followed the characters into a world which is remorseless, vast, and inexorable in its operations.

Much of Aickman’s best work obliterates any certainty between real and unreal, dream and waking reality. In one of his greatest stories, “Into the Wood” (in some ways an ars poetica), an insomniac tells the protagonist: “Dreams … are misleading, because they make life seem real. When it loses this support of dreams, life dissolves.” Aickman’s project was to explore all the repercussions of this idea.

“Dreams … are misleading, because they make life seem real. When it loses this support of dreams, life dissolves.”

Given his stories’ frequent interest in dreams, imagination, and the unconscious, it is no surprise that Aickman read plenty of Freud. Yet while Freud’s influence is clear in many of his stories, they are far from being simple illustrations of Freudian concepts. (In this way, they are interesting to compare to the tales in May Sinclair’s 1923 collection Uncanny Stories, which hew closer to Freud.) Large, dull theses could be written relating Aickman’s fiction to Freud’s “The Uncanny”, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and Civilization and Its Discontents at the very least. In the first of the introductions for the eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories he edited from 1964–1972, Aickman declared:

Dr. Freud established that only a small part, perhaps one-tenth, of the human mental and emotional organization is conscious. … The trouble, as we all know, is that the one-tenth, the intellect, is not looking after us: if we do not blow ourselves up, we shall crowd ourselves out; above all, we have destroyed all hope of quality in living. The ghost story, like Dr. Freud, makes contact with the submerged nine-tenths.

Here, then, Aickman sees the ghost story as a melding of Romanticism and surrealism: it escapes the intellect via the subconscious. He also saw it as related to poetry, reiterating throughout his Fontana introductions (all collected in the Tartarus Press edition of Night Voices) something similar to what he said in the fourth volume: “The ghost story, like poetry, deals with the experience behind experience: behind almost any experience.” Such a story is an expression of imagination, not reason, and as such Aickman viewed it as superior to science, which he tended to denigrate. Truth, he thought, lay far beyond rationality, and science, along with the technologies it sprouted, was smothering the truths available via imagination, poetry, and religion. The power of mystery must be respected:

The essential quality of the ghost story is that it gives satisfying form to the unanswerable; to thoughts and feelings, even experiences, which are common to all imaginative people, but which cannot be rendered down scientifically into “nothing but” something else. In a world of meaningless fact and meaningless violence, people shrink from admitting that they still harbor entities of the imagination. The element of form in the ghost story is, therefore, crucial.Giving satisfying form to the unanswerable is what makes Aickman’s stories often perplexing on a first reading, because satisfying form is not the same as satisfying answers. Seeking answers for the unanswerable is, to Aickman, the murderous foolishness of modern science, and his stories stand in stubborn opposition to such quests.

Aickman is often celebrated (and frequently condemned) for the ambiguity of his stories: ambiguity of cause and effect, ambiguity of motivation, ambiguity of resolution. Few Aickman stories have a neat ending, and it is in this sense that he seems to me most Chekhovian, though Aickman and Chekhov came from almost entirely opposite world-views: Chekhov, after all, was a doctor with much respect for science and little use for religion or mysticism. Where they overlap is in their sense that individual human perception is immensely limited, and that, to compensate for such limitations, the prose must pay careful attention to objective details. (“The artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness,” Chekhov once wrote in a letter.) Michael Dirda also makes the Chekhov connection, writing in the introduction to the Tartarus edition of Tales of Love and Death,

Like Chekhov, Aickman seldom attempts to rouse our emotions: he sets down what happens without narrative histrionics. Not even the most astonishing turns of event elicit much surprise or wonder. As a result, that affectless, unruffled tone adds immeasurably to his work’s distinctive, unsettling eeriness. Odd or horrible things occur but they do so without fuss, and they are observed with a dispassionate, Olympian clarity.

Not even the most astonishing turns of event elicit much surprise or wonder.

The dispassionate tone is especially important to third-person narratives; the first-person stories of both Chekhov and Aickman betray the two writers’ passion for theatre and often read like extended monologues.

Aickman, who cherished Oscar Wilde, was drawn to epigrams and aphorisms, and first-person narrators allowed him particular opportunities to employ his wit:

It is strange that people train themselves so carefully to go to waste so prematurely. (“The Unsettled Dust”)

It is amazing how full a life a man can lead without for one moment being alive at all, except sometimes when sleeping. (“The Fetch”)

There are no beautiful clocks. Everything to do with time is hideous. (“The Clock Watcher”)

If one goes to parties or meets many new people in any other way, one has to take protective action quite frequently, however much one hates oneself in the process; just as human beings are compelled to massacre animals unceasingly, because human beings are simply unable to survive, for the most part, on apples and nuts. (“Ravissante”)

…it is no joke being a married woman in East Anglia, if the woman has the smallest imagination. (“Wood”)

Regardless of the narration, though, in both Aickman’s and Chekhov’s stories, seemingly irrelevant details serve to indicate a world beyond the protagonist. In Chekhov, it’s often a larger world of social systems and of nature; in Aickman, it’s a world beyond the limited realm of human perceptions. Aickman was as interested in subjectivity as any Modernist, but he chose the seemingly outmoded conventions of the ghost story for his explorations of perception’s limits, rather than the conventions of interior monologue. In stories like “Meeting Mr. Millar”, Aickman plunges us into a character’s consciousness, but does so without fanfare, simply letting the accumulation of what the narrator chooses to relate contribute to a steadily-growing feeling of claustrophobia.

The portrayal of consciousness as limited and perception as narrow is not an end in itself, though, which is why, for Aickman, the uncanny is essential. The world is not what our consciousness presents, and our conscious mind cannot bring the world’s truths to us. The supernatural, like the subconscious, can be glimpsed, sensed, even experienced, but it is often beyond most sorts of perception, and always beyond understanding. The first sentence of “The Hospice” could point to the location of truth in all of Aickman’s stories: “It was somewhere at the back of beyond.”

Another key to Aickman’s writing is his hatred of modernity. His collaborator and (briefly) lover Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote in her memoir Slipstream that Aickman believed “everything had declined.” She says he felt that

Before the beginning of the century, life had held more promise. The arts, architecture, hotels, food, clothes, furniture, the governance of the country — everything you could think of — had been better. … There had been nothing, since those unspecified and halcyon days, but a steady diminution in all standards. We were approaching the end of civilization.

This sense of civilization’s decline and impending fall rarely leads Aickman’s stories toward nostalgia, but instead toward an always-present sense of doom. His characters generally survive their encounters with oddity, but there is little sense of triumph, and anyone who still believes in the possibility of triumph is a dolt or a cad. Aickman had more than a little impulse toward satire, but the sharp despair inspiring the satire is what makes any laughter provoked by Aickman’s stories disturbing on reflection.

Consider, for instance, “Growing Boys,” a tale of twins who grow quickly and don’t stop until they have become destructive giants. It’s a darkly funny story in its premise and even its title, taking a familiar, happy phrase and literalizing it. But the story itself is no lark — it enters the territory of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child. What are parents to do when their children are, truly, monsters? To this, Aickman also brings in questions of gender and imperialism.

Quite a few of Aickman’s best stories feature women as protagonists, and for all his preference for the life of the past, he does not seem to have wished to return to a time of conventional gender roles or sexual expectations. Millie, the mother in “Growing Boys,” is plagued not only by monstrous children, but by an oblivious and self-centered husband and a patriarchal uncle who wants nothing so much as to protect fragile white womanhood as he thinks he did in India and Africa. (He is a devoted reader of The Imperialist magazine.) Millie’s salvation comes from a woman who represents a very different tradition: Thelma, a gypsy fortune-teller (an unfortunate stereotype, though not used for entirely stereotypical purposes in the story). Thelma tells Millie to flee and make a new life for herself. Later, Millie dreams of climbing Mount Everest with Thelma. The story’s enthusiasm for female homosociality is clear. Thelma is the only person who gives Millie useful help, the only person who sees that Millie needs somehow to get away from men who take advantage of her (her husband), from men whose masculinity is predicated on war and domination (her uncle, whose guns prove impotent), and from men who want nothing so much as to eat her alive (her sons).

After reading the story, Joanna Russ wrote:

I can’t shake off the impression that “Robert Aickman” is a pseudonym and the author is a woman, since the tale’s subject is the cannibalistic horror of family life, from which the Everywoman heroine is offered two escapes: decamping with another, friendly woman (the heroine dreams at one point that they’re happily climbing the Himalayas together) and an ideal, protective substitute father. The ending is the kind mothers — but not fathers — dream of.

Men in Aickman’s stories tend to suffer all sorts of repression, while women are often more liberated, their terrors the result of proximity to men who are (or yearn to be) good patriarchs who follow the laws of the fathers. The chaos that comes to their lives is a chaos caused by repression and patriarchy, with violence and imperialism often linked to that patriarchy. (For all his conservative tendencies, Aickman was a pacifist and had been a conscientious objector during World War II.)

Of his own experience with a patriarch, Aickman wrote in The Attempted Rescue (one of his two autobiographies), “My father, as I knew him, was impossible to live with, to be married to, to be dependent upon.” Aickman assisted his father some in his business as an architect, and architecture is important to many of the stories, where traveling characters often encounter strange houses and buildings. In such stories, Aickman feels close to Kafka: not just The Castle and the various spaces of The Trial, but also the confining bedroom of “The Metamorphosis,” the tunnels of “The Burrow,” and other structures. Walls protect no one, and building them only creates new areas to hold mysteries within the greater area of the mysteries of the universe.

It is his devotion to the mystery of the universe that leads Aickman to the images and forms in his stories, and those images and forms link him not only to his fellow writers of supernatural fiction, but also to many writers who find unanswerable worlds in everyday experience — there is no reason, it seems to me, not to speak of Aickman alongside such celebrated “realists” as, for instance, David Constantine and Joy Williams. The reading protocols we use when making our way through the pages of Tea at the Midland and The Visiting Privilege are ones that would serve us well when approaching The Wine-Dark Sea and Cold Hand in Mine. Some volumes of strange stories get shelved as horror fiction, and some others do not; that has as much to do with marketing and happenstance as it does with how we should read and value those books.

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